UK paperback

Choice advisers

A tale of two Blairs

Unspeak is also mentioned in a Times comment piece today, by Ben Macintyre. The article begins by recounting a cabinet minister’s rebellion at the language of “choice advisers” in the context of school selection. I must admit that I am not sure what is so pernicious about “choice advisers”, who, one imagines, might lay out the choices available and help you choose between them. Unless “choice” is an adjective, so that it means “particularly good advisers”. But we know that no bureaucratic adviser could be anything but choice. It’s true that the notion of “choice”, cloaking itself in the absolute virtue of the commercial sphere, is sprayed around rhetorically in all sorts of places where its sense is sometimes hard to discern: particularly in discussions of the NHS. Choice requires information and deliberation, of which you might not have much when being wheeled into the emergency room . . .

Macintyre’s general discussion of Blair’s abuses of English, though, is very good. I particularly liked this bit:

Mr Blair’s is the language of togetherness and perhaps his most damaging legacy to political speech is the coupling of opposites: “social justice and economic dynamism, ambition and compassion, fairness and enterprise, traditional values in a modern setting”. Politics is about choice and conflict, but by nailing together apparently contradictory phrases and ambitions, he creates the illusion of harmony and reconciliation. The dualism may be traced to the Blair adviser Philip Gould and his study of Hegel’s dialectics. It is also known as “having your cake and eating it”.

I cannot resist noticing that while it is apparently good that politics should be about “choice”, heaven help anyone who offers to advise you on it. Macintyre elsewhere discusses David Cameron’s imitations of Blairite vocabulary: it might be helpful in this context to recall Cameron’s masterful Unspeak appropriation of the phrase “social justice”, in which it is no longer the opposite of “economic dynamism”.

The article goes on to offer a deft selection of military Unspeak, including one I didn’t mention, Reagan’s marvellous “pre-dawn vertical insertion”. (No sniggering at the back, please.) His diagnosis: “Euphemism is a weapon; it makes war easier.” However, Unspeak encompasses dysphemism – making things sound worse than they are – as well as euphemism. Blair’s recent muttering about unborn children who will grow up to become a “menace to society” is not exactly euphemistic.

Finally, Macintyre quotes an apt passage from another Blair, better known as George Orwell:

One cannot change all this in a moment . . . but from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase into the dustbin, where it belongs.

Quite so. We do try.

  1. 1  WizardBill  September 15, 2006, 5:56 pm 

    re: “having your cake and eating it”. It’s always bothered me that this expression is backward. Anyone can have some cake and then eat it. What you cannot do is eat your cake and then still have it, unless you’re Tony Blair…

  2. 2  SP  September 15, 2006, 6:13 pm 

    Sometimes it’s “having your cake and eating it too“, but you could just eat half of it. Or buy two cakes.

  3. 3  bobw  September 15, 2006, 7:15 pm 

    “Language of togetherness” seems like a very valuable contribution. It’s the main sin of American political speech, probably all political speech. We must remember the point of political speech is to conceal, or make what is being done for the few seem acceptable to the many.

    I always thought phrases like “bourgeouis decadence” and “running capitalist dogs” had a bracing candor and physicality babout them. No Unspeak there!

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts